The New England Patriots have been in almost every game that they have played this season, but their record is still 2-4. There are many reasons for that, and the execution of the players is certainly close to the top of that list, but there is another that I believe is even higher. That is the team’s conservative decision making on fourth down.
The Patriots have been almost completely unwilling to go for it on fourth down this year, even when doing so clearly seems to be the correct decision. We are only going to highlight four plays here, though there have been more this season. These four cost them two winnable games, however, and so they are the ones on which we will focus.
Week 4 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Situation: Patriots 7, Buccaneers 3, 2:00 remaining in the first half, 4th-and-2 at the Tampa Bay 44-yard line
Play: 4-7-TB 49 (2:00) J.Bailey punts 44 yards to TB 5, Center-J.Cardona, downed by NE-M.Slater.
The Patriots had just gained 15 yards on a pass to Brandon Bolden, and they were facing a fourth down in Buccaneers territory. The Patriots had forced the Bucs to punt twice already, and the reigning world champions had both missed a field goal and hit one after the New England defense had toughened up in the red zone.
Originally facing a 4th-and-2 after that 15-yarder, the Patriots took a delay of game penalty to give Jake Bailey more space to work with. Bailey ended up pinning the Buccaneers at their own 5-yard line, but with two timeouts available they drove down the field in 1:36 and kicked a 44-yarder right before the half expired. They then received the second half kickoff, even though they did not end up scoring on that possession.
We can call it a win and say that New England only ended up giving up a field goal, but I would argue that everyone in the world should have known that the Bucs would score on that drive, even though they had struggled to up until that point. Why? Because Tom Brady, that’s why.
When you are playing the greatest quarterback of all time, you have to be more aggressive. When the money is on the line, at the end of the game or half, Brady almost always comes through. He did again here, and the Patriots would end up losing the game by two points. I can certainly understand not wanting to go for it right before the half, but giving Brady the ball back with two minutes and two timeouts simply is a dangerous decision to make.
Week 4 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Situation: Patriots 17, Buccaneers 19, 0:59 remaining in game, 4th-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 37-yard line
Play: 4-3-TB 37 (:59) N.Folk 56 yard field goal is No Good, Hit Left Upright, Center-J.Cardona, Holder-J.Bailey.
The Patriots had a 7-6 lead late in the third quarter, and the two teams started trading scoring drives. The Buccaneers scored on three straight possessions — one touchdown and two field goals — and New England on back-to-back drives via one touchdown and one field goal. Now, the Patriots were driving again to try to take the lead at the very end of the game.
New England would decide to attempt a 56-yard field goal with Nick Folk instead of trying to convert on 4th-and-3. Even if the Patriots had made the kick, which would have tied a career-high for Folk, the Buccaneers would have gotten the ball back with just about a minute left, with two timeouts still available. Is there anyone in America that believes that Tom Brady wouldn’t have driven his team down and put it in field goal range to attempt a game winner?
So, even if the play had worked out perfectly and Folk’s kick went through the uprights, the Patriots would not have been in the clear just yet. What is the point of going for a low-percentage kick if you have no certainty that you are going to win even if the kicker makes it? This was curious at the time, and, although Folk came so close to hitting it, it is hard to defend this decision by Belichick.
This kick plus the aforementioned Bailey punt are, in my opinion, among the main reasons why the Patriots lost a very winnable game against the Buccaneers.
Both decisions were curious, and seemed like they were decisions made trying to not lose the game instead of actively trying to win it. I understand that Tom Brady struggled in this game, but he is still Tom Brady. He did his thing for 20 years at Gillette Stadium, and you know if the game is on the line, that he is almost always going to come through. You cannot give him that chance, and Belichick did it twice
Week 6 vs Dallas Cowboys
Situation: Patriots 14, Cowboys 10, 9:45 remaining in the 3rd quarter, 4th-and-2 from the 50
Play: 4-2-50 (9:24) J.Bailey punts 41 yards to DAL 9, Center-J.Cardona, fair catch by C.Wilson.
After the Patriots and Cowboys traded three-and-outs to start the second half, New England got the ball with great field position thanks to a 23-yard Gunner Olszewski punt return. Of course, the offense started the drive with a false start, which wasn’t great, but it followed it up with two positive plays to Rhamondre Stevenson, which left the Patriots in a 3rd-and-1 situation.
The first issue is the play call on third down. The Patriots decided to take Stevenson off the field and instead hand the ball to Brandon Bolden. Maybe they thought the Cowboys would be expecting a pass with Bolden on the field, but they were not: Bolden was stopped for a 1-yard loss, setting up 4th-and-2.
It was early in the half, and the offense had just lost a yard, but here’s the thing: You are at midfield, and you have been able to slow down the Cowboys offense up to that point — something you should have known was not sustainable.
Instead of going for it on fourth down, however, the Patriots punted away to the Cowboys, and they responded with an eight-play, 91-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. The Patriots should have anticipated that the Cowboys offense would come alive at some point, and it ended up scoring on every possession the rest of the game except for a missed field goal. Belichick and company would have been better off think about keeping up with them, and not wasting a possessions that could have been kept alive by a 2-yard gain.
Week 6 vs Dallas Cowboys
Situation: Patriots 29, Dallas 29, 8:04 remaining in OT, 4th and 3 from the NE 46
Play: 4-3-NE 46 (8:00) J.Bailey punts 34 yards to DAL 20, Center-J.Cardona, fair catch by C.Lamb.
The Patriots won the coin toss after the Cowboys had forced overtime by hitting a long field goal (in large part because they picked up 24 yards on a 3rd-and-25). The New England defense had been unable to stop the Cowboys offense since the second quarter, and it was completely gassed after running 82 plays in regulation.
The Patriots needed to score on the first drive of overtime, or there was a high chance they were going to lose based on this volume of snaps alone. Just look at it from this perspective: the Cowboys had one drive all night that went for less than 40 yards. Regardless of where they were on the field, assuming that the Cowboys would pick up at least 40 yards, they were probably going to be in field goal range at some point during their first offensive possession — which would have been enough to kick the game-winner.
The Patriots needed to do whatever possible to at least end their first drive with a field goal. So, when they faced 4th-and-3 from their own 46, leaving the offense on the field should have been a no-brainer.
Give the Cowboys the ball at their 20 — which is what happened after the punt — or at your own 46, it does not matter: they are likely going to score either way. That should have been enough to convince the Patriots to go for it, but if it wasn’t, the play of rookie quarterback Mac Jones should have pushed them over the edge.
Jones finished the game with just six incompletions, and constantly hit open receivers all game long. I would much rather leave the game up to him and the offense picking up three yards, then the defense stopping the Cowboys in overtime. Instead, however, the Patriots decided to punt and the Cowboys were in field goal range five plays later. The game was over two plays after that.
Let’s not criticize the decision based on the result, but before the Patriots punted the ball, anyone watching the game should have known what was going to happen.
New England simply is not good enough to be conservative on offense right now. The team therefore has to take advantage of the opportunities that come its way.
Here is what I like to do in these situations: Try asking yourself what is more likely to happen, the Patriots picking up two yards, or them stopping Tom Brady from driving for a score at the end of the first half? Is it more likely that the Patriots will pick up three yards, or that Nick Folk will hit a 56-yard FG in the rain, and then the defense will stop Brady from scoring with a minute and two timeouts left? Is it more likely that the Patriots will pick up three yards, or that the Patriots will stop the Cowboys from putting any points on the board?
I simply cannot imagine anyone doing that exercise and coming to the conclusion that New England should have kicked in any, let alone all of those situations. The Patriots are obviously going to need to execute better on the field if they expect to turn these close losses into wins, but the coaching is not up to the level it needs to be at all either.
Bill Belichick needs to start trusting the numbers, and trusting his offense, more often if his team is expecting to make any noise at the end of this season.
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast. Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats.